Nature is not natural and can never be naturalized — Graham Harman

Monday, February 27, 2012

Poetry and Perception

I just wrote this to my poetry analysis students:

Hi All,

Don't forget the close reading notes in the resources folder on smartsite.

To get an A grade, you need to talk about interactions between levels. In a way, you are starting to reassemble the poem after having broken it down.

This is congruent with what we know about perception, in which objects seem to appear as manifolds, not as pixels that are then scanned. Some researchers at Berkeley recently reconstructed brain images from brain wave scans using a computer that searched YouTube for similar images based on interpretations of the wave patterns. You can see them on YouTube, it's rather uncanny.

What we learn from this is what some philosophy (phenomenology) already knows: you perceive things as a whole, in a single shot. You don't assemble pixelated breakdowns of things. You see a cup of coffee: the whole cup is right there, in your mind.

It's a bit tricky doing this with a poem--or with anything--because we tend to be unconscious of the physical level(s) of reality. We just want to walk through it, drink it, allow it to work on us unexamined.

Yours, TM


Bill Benzon said...

You might want to check out the Thatcher effect, Tim. Here's part of the Wikipedia gloss:

The effect is illustrated by two originally identical photos,[1] which are inverted. The second picture is obviously altered so that the eyes and mouth are vertically flipped, though the changes are not immediately obvious until the image is viewed in normal orientation.

This is thought to be due to specific psychological processes involved in face perception which are tuned especially to upright faces. Faces seem unique despite the fact that they are very similar. It has been hypothesised that we develop specific processes to differentiate between faces that rely as much on the configuration (the structural relationship between individual features on the face) as the details of individual face features, such as the eyes, nose and mouth. When a face is upside down, the configural processing cannot take place, and so minor differences are more difficult to detect.

That "configural processing" is processing of the whole as a whole. Though I think that last sentence needs a bit of clarification. The configural processing relies on the specific orientation of the face. When it's upside down, it's difficult to identify because the configuration of the upside down face doesn't match any known facial configuration. But configural processing does take place and it 'swamps' the altered features.

One reason that decent literary criticism is difficult is that our configural grasp of the whole makes it difficult to attend to any but the most conventionally recognized compenents. One has to learn how to break the configuration to notice parts.rgau

Thomas Devaney said...

I agree perception of things happens as singular wholes, single shots as you write; and that objects appear (to use your words) as manifolds and not pixels, but experiences with texts are temporal -- taking place as we read -- and so by that fact, not objects or things that can be taken as a whole unless it is discussing the experience of having read something rather than how it feels to be reading. Brain scans of people looking at objects are one thing, but isn't the temporal by its nature not an object, though things (as a category) might be a bridge here between bits, wholes, and the nature of experience.